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June 11, 2007
Brundtland Report Celebrates 20th Anniversary Since Coining Sustainable Development
    by Bill Baue

Part one of this two-part article examines how the Brundtland Report has promoted sustainable development over the past two decades.

Sustainability is an ancient concept, best articulated in the Gayaneshakgowa, or the Great Law of Peace of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy: "In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." This concept was reawakened two decades ago through the publication of Our Common Future, popularly known as the "Brundtland Report." This report, named after Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland chair of the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development that authored it, coined the term "sustainable development," which introduced a slight twist on sustainability.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," the report famously states in its oft-cited quote. The next sentences may be equally important, though less known: "Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognizes that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which countries of the global South play a large role and reap large benefits."

"Economic growth always brings risk of environmental damage, as it puts increased pressure on environmental resources," the report continues. "But policy makers guided by the concept of sustainable development will necessarily work to assure that growing economies remain firmly attached to their ecological roots and that these roots are protected and nurtured so that they may support growth over the long term."

The report thus strung a tightrope between environmental stewardship and economic growth (a debatable linkage), and entrusted policymakers to walk the line (a questionable assumption.) Indeed, some questioned whether economic growth of the type guided by "developed" country policymakers might be antithetical to environmental balance nominally advocated by the Brundtland Report.

"[T]op-down management, misguided by an unrealistic vision of development as the generalization of Northern over-consumption to the rapidly multiplying masses of the South has led to many external failures, both economic and ecological," said Herman Daly, considered the father of ecological economics, in his retirement speech from the World Bank Environmental Department in early 1994.

The Brundtland Report, which inspired the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the Climate Change Convention and in turn the Kyoto Protocol, acknowledged that many "of the development paths of the industrialized nations are clearly unsustainable." However, it held fast to its embrace of development toward industrialized nation living standards as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

"If large parts of countries of the global South are to avert economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized," the report stated. "In practical terms, this means more rapid economic growth in both industrial and countries of the global South, freer market access for the products of countries of the global South, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer, and significantly larger capital flows, both concessional and commercial."

The notion of sustainable development established by the Brundtland Report helped popularize the concept of sustainability, though the two ideas differ (despite the fact they are often used interchangeably.)

"Most people outside the field of sustainable development have never heard of Our Common Future, but it helped create the field--and push the related concepts into the political mainstream," said John Elkington, chief entrepreneur of SustainAbility, the UK-based think tank and consultancy he founded about the same time as the launch of Our Common Future. "I don't consider the terms sustainable development and sustainability synonymous."

"The principles of sustainability, involving the prioritization of intergenerational equity--in addition to what you might call interspecies equity--seem to me to operate at a higher, almost civilizational level, than sustainable development," Mr. Elkington told

In other words, sustainability takes a longer, broader, and more interconnected view than sustainable development.

Over the past 20 years, the Brundtland Report has helped fuel many advancements. These include wider use of the language of sustainability, better understanding of the underlying science of sustainability, technological improvement (such as cleantech), and uptake of the sustainability agenda by financial markets. However, true sustainable development has been achieved "to a very limited extent indeed" since the publication of the Brundtland Report, according to Mr. Elkington.

"Demographic trends have been moving against us--and, as the development of countries like Russia, India, and China demonstrates, our economic models haven't changed that much over the past 20 years," Mr. Elkington said.

Going forward, Ms. Brundtland has the opportunity to effect perhaps greater change, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed her as a Special Envoy on Climate Change last month.

"Climate change is the most dramatic example of a sustainability challenge--in terms of civilizational resilience and survival--that currently faces us, so it is absolutely appropriate that she play that role," Mr. Elkington said. "But the nature of the challenge is very different to producing a report, and Norway is a peculiar country in world affairs, so not at all clear that her skills as Prime Minister are directly transferable--even were that the intention. We must wait and see!"

Part two of this two-part article looks at a recent report from SustainAbility that projects the future of sustainability over the next 20 years.


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